Thursday, September 06, 2018

Doorbells at Dusk Review

Doorbells at Dusk, edited by Evans Light, Corpus Press, 2018, 280 pages.

Released just in time for Halloween, Doorbells at Dusk presents fourteen varied tales of seasonal horror. These range from the gory to the atmospheric. I have a piece in this anthology but will mainly focus on other stories.

My piece is called “A Plague of Monsters.” I wanted to keep the reader guessing as to the source of the “monsters” until pretty far along in the story. I hope it worked. I definitely had a lot of fun writing the story. It’s a kind of ode to the many SF/horror tales and movies that I’ve enjoyed in my life.

Next up we have “The Rye-Mother” (great title) by Curtis M. Lawson. An eerie tale, very atmospheric. What lies at the heart of the corn maze on Halloween? Young David decides to find out.

Amber Fallon is next with “The Day of the Dead.” There’s a cool twist here with the role that costumes play in the tale. I certainly didn’t predict the kicker at the end.

“Rusty Husk,” by Evans Light is next. Another great title. This one ups the gore content of the collection. Rusty enjoys Halloween a little too much but he’s soon to learn the true meaning of the holiday.

“Adam’s Bed,” by Josh Malerman follows. Ronnie is a dad, and he loves his kid, although he loves his party lifestyle at least as much. What he doesn’t love is the presence under his son’s bed.

Jason Parent is next with “Keeping up Appearances.” They chose the richest looking houses to rob. And everything went smoothly. Until they picked the wrong house.

Chad Lutzke gives us “Vigil.” Different folks are probably going to have different favorites in a collection like Doorbells at Dusk. “Vigil” was one of mine from the collection. This tale is absolutely realistic, and maybe that’s why it creeped me out so much. I could easily put myself into the narrator’s shoes.

Gregor Xane gives us “Mr. Impossible.” A fun block party takes a turn for the worse. The last half of the story is visceral and relentless.

Ian Welke gives us “Between,” one of the atmospheric tales in the collection. The main character, Yolanda, has a fascination with mathematical forms, and with hallucinogenics. Definitely a character driven story.

“The Friendly Man” by Thomas Vaughn is up next, and I’m going to give this one a slight edge as my favorite piece in the collection. Gory for sure, but with a real underlying creep factor. The ending kept me thinking about the story long after it was over.

Sean Eads and Joshua Viola are up next with “Many Carvings,” (another great title.) Another atmospheric tale. Full of creepiness. If you raise an army of children to do your bidding, what happens when they take the reins in their own hands?

“Trick ‘em All,” by Adam Light is next. Travis is relegated by his parents to manning the candy dish for Halloween. He has other plans, and it begins with carving a secret pumpkin, a pumpkin with a secret of its own. Really strong ending to this one.

“Offerings,” by Joanna Koch is up next. This one is just fantastically creepy. All of us adults know how strange little children can be. We were like that when we were children. But the kids in this story have a little more strangeness than most.

The final story in the anthology is “Masks,” by Lisa Lepovetsky. No one can leave the party until the last guest arrives. That’s when the fun begins! I thought this was a good strong choice to end the anthology with.

Each of the stories in Doorbells at Dusk offered an interesting take on the horrors of Halloween. I read one story a day and was thus able to really milk each one for all it had to offer. I recommend that process to you as well, and I don’t believe you’ll be disappointed in Doorbells at Dusk.  

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Twilight Echoes #1

So, let me drop this casually on you. I’m in a magazine with Robert E. Howard. You might respond with, “Robert E. Howard died quite a long time ago.” Yes. Yes, he did. But his stories live on. And one of his living stories has just been reprinted in Twilight Echoes #1, from Carnelian Press, edited by Steve Dilks. And it so happens that my own story, “A Whisper in Ashes” is also to be found in the same magazine. It makes me a little giddy.

There are stories by two other writers in the mag as well, and plenty of great illustrations, so let me give my brief review here. First up we have my own story, “A Whisper in Ashes.” This is the first tale I completed about a character I call Krieg. Krieg is not a pastiche of any previous sword & sorcery character out there, but his development was certainly influenced by Karl Edward Wagner’s stories of “Kane,” and Howard’s tales of “Kull.” One difference is that nothing is revealed here, or in the first few stories, about Krieg’s origins. We don’t know where he came from and no one will until some of the later stories in the series. So far, only three tales are complete. The second one, “Where all the Souls are Hollow” was recently published in the anthology Unsheathed. The third one, “The Rotted Land,” is ready to be sent out. And two more are in partial stages of completion.

The second story in the magazine is “Bride of the Swamp God” by Davide Mana. I’ve not been familiar with Mana’s work but intend to change that. We’ve got strong characters in Aculeo, a Roman legionary, and Amunet, the daughter of a sorcerer who seeks her own power. Twists and turns and betrayals abound in this tale of sorcerous bargains gone wrong. Throw in an elder god and you have all the ingredients of a great sword and sorcery tale.

The third story is “The Eyes of the Scorpion” by Steve Lines. I was also not familiar with Steve Lines’ work but this is an excellent tale written in an interesting style. For those of you know of Conan, you know of the quote: “Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of…” To me, Lines’ style captures this kind of feel. Great atmospheric piece. I also loved the vocabulary here, which is something I always enjoyed about Robert E. Howard’s work as well.

Finally, we have Robert E. Howard, with a Conan tale called “The Vale of Lost Women.” “Vale” is not one of the better known Conan stories; in fact, it wasn’t published during Howard’s lifetime. These may be the reasons our editor selected it. The plot is very simple. A female captive needs rescuing, but Howard doesn’t give us that rescue in the way we think it’s going to happen. The tale certainly showcases the “vigor” of Howard’s prose. That’s always the word that comes to mind when I read Howard. There’s a “physicality” to his writing that is hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it.

These stories, along with dynamite illustrations by the likes of Jim Pitts, Tony Gleeson, Yannis Rubus Rubulias, Kurt Brugel, and Regis Moulun, as well as a substantive editorial by Steve Dilks, make Twilight Echoes #1 a sweet little package. If you’re interested in picking up a copy, here’s the link you need:

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The Heart of the Matter

On Saturday, August the 4th, I had a heart attack. I was walking down the dirt road by my house when I felt sudden constriction in my chest, intense weakness, shortness of breath, and tingling numbness in my whole upper body. I started back toward the house; the pain and weakness grew. I started to sit down in the ditch but figured I wouldn’t be able to get up again so I worked my way back to the house and called 911. The paramedics arrived quickly and after they put a scanner on me a young lady said: “We need to go now!” I didn’t think that was a good sign.

With sirens blaring, they got me to St. Tammany Hospital in Covington pretty quickly, with the young woman working on me the whole time. I never lost consciousness or even felt any real confusion. Mostly I felt fairly calm since at this point I understood it was all out of my hands. Once at the hospital they told me that the frontal artery leading to my heart was 100 percent blocked. They quickly put in a stent. I was then sent to ICU.

I spent two days in ICU, being introduced to a host of new medications. These made me quite nauseated, meaning I couldn’t eat anything. Not that I felt very hungry. On Monday evening they moved me to a new room in the regular hospital, and then released me Tuesday evening, although I was sent home wearing something called “Life Vest,” which monitors me and apparently can administer treatment if I have another attack.

The doctors said there was clearly damage to the heart but they won’t know how much or how much recovery I might expect until several weeks have passed. I’m hoping for good news on that front and am trying to follow all their protocols. I’m weak and can move only slowly. Still no appetite. I’ve been able to process some emails but not much else. I’m going to try to build my strength slowly. I do plan to be back at school for my classes though there are contingency plans for me easing back into that.

Thanks goes out to all the folks from the paramedics to the housecleaners who got me through my stay at the hospital, particularly the nurses in ICU, who were very considerate and kind and helpful.

Also, of course, to Lana, who has been a rock. She was at work when it happened and was working the phones at the desk when the call came through for her. I understand it was quite a shock. She’s taking a few days off work to stay home with me while I begin to mend.

I always suspected that I would need a stent or stents eventually. My brother has had to have them. But I thought I’d get some kind of warning of trouble before the actual attack. It didn’t happen in my case so any of you out there with the risk factors, get yourself checked.

Monday, July 09, 2018

The Mighty Warriors, Edited by Robert M. Price

The Mighty Warriors, Edited by Robert M. Price, Ulthar Press, 2018, 239 pages.

If you’re like this nearing 60-year-old, you may remember such great anthologies from the 1960s and 1970s as The Mighty Barbarians, The Might Swordsmen, Warlocks and Warriors, Savage Heroes, The Spell of Seven, Warlocks and Warriors, Swords & Sorcery, Swordsmen and Supermen, The Fantastic Swordsmen, The Barbarian Swordsmen, The Dark of the Soul, and the Flashing Swords and Swords Against Darkness series. These books were edited by such folks as L. Sprague De Camp, Lin Carter, Andrew Offutt, and Hans Stefan Santesson. They collected imaginative tales of sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy. Most included a story by Robert E. Howard, the father of the genre. I collected and devoured them all.

            In 2018, along comes Robert M. Price, a well remembered name in his own right, to try and capture that fateful lightning in a bottle (or prose) again. I’m not sure exactly how the collection came about, but several authors well known in the S & S genre were persuaded to take part, including Adrian Cole, David C. Smith, and Charles R. Saunders, as well as quite a few relative newcomers. The collection contains eleven stories. Here is the TOC, followed by my thoughts:

"Know, O Prince: An Introduction" by Robert M. Price

"Spawn of the Sea God" by Adrian Cole

"The Corpse's Crusade" by Cody Goodfellow

"Thongor in the Valley of Demons" By Robert M. Price

"The Shadow of Dia-Sust" by David C. Smith

"Amudu's Bargain" by Charles R. Saunders

"The Secret of Nephren-Ka" by Robert M. Price

"The Temple of Light" by Milton J. Davis

"Kiss of the Succubus" by Charles R. Rutledge

"The Living Wind" by Ken Asamtsu, translated by Edward Lipsett

"The Last Temple of Balsoth" by Cliff Biggers

"Lono and the Pit of Punhaki" by Paul R. McNamee

Appendices I-III
            While interesting, the introduction by Price could easily have been expanded. I would have liked to have seen a little more historical context myself, but I understand that many readers just want the stories and don’t much care about the history. I’m not sure that’s the case for most of the readers who will buy this collection, but I understand the impulse to keep the intro brief.

I recall Adrian Cole first from a wonderful trilogy of novels set in his own universe (Dream Lords), but here we have him telling a story about Elak of Atlantis--"Spawn of the Sea God". Elak was invented by Henry Kuttner. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Elak stories, since the character didn’t quite have the vitality that I associated with Robert E. Howard’s barbarians, but Cole does an excellent job of capturing the character and telling a fine, fun tale.

I don’t know anything about Cody Goodfellow. His "The Corpse's Crusade" is a tale of Zothique, which was invented by Clark Ashton Smith. Zothique is a continent of a future, dying earth. Again, I thought the author did a good job of capturing the sense of Smith’s Zothique. I liked this tale quite a bit with its twist of irony plot.

Next is Robert Price with a tale of "Thongor in the Valley of Demons.” Thongor is the creation of Lin Carter and was essentially a kind of mix between Conan and John Carter. He lived on the continent of Lemuria. Price has a whole collection of Thongor tales out called The Sword of Thongor. This is a new tale, though, not included in that collection. I have a soft spot for the Thongor tales and this is a worthy continuation of the character.

"The Shadow of Dia-Sust" by David C. Smith is a tale of Oron. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Smith wrote numerous stories and a couple of books about Oron. I much enjoyed them and was very happy to see a new tale of the character. Smith was also one of the best of the Robert E. Howard pastiche writers of the 70s and 80s so he knows how to write a tale of high adventure.

Charles Saunders is best known for his tales of Imaro, a warrior hero of Nyumbani, a kind of alternate Africa. There were three novels originally of this character and I read and enjoyed them all. It was good to see a fresh Imaro story, "Amudu's Bargain." I believe this one has a slight edge as my favorite of the collection.

"The Secret of Nephren-Ka" by Robert M. Price is next. This is a story of Simon of Gitta, originally a creation of Richard Tierney, although based on the Biblical character of Simon Magus. These stories tend to involve more sorcery and less sword than I typically like, but Tierney was a very fine writer and, again, Price captures the character well.

Milton J. Davis is next, with "The Temple of Light,” a tale of his hero Changa. Changa is an interesting character, a literary descendent of Imaro, I should think. Very good writing and setting. Davis has other stories of Changa out as well.

"Kiss of the Succubus,” by Charles R. Rutledge, features his hero Kharnn. This one is set in the 1500s. Kharnn is a time traveling barbarian. This is a straightforward blood and thunder tale of a battle against a demon. Fun stuff.

I’ve read a little bit of Ken Asamtsu’s work before. He is a Japanese author. I haven’t read his work in the original language but the translations have been exciting and enjoyable. "The Living Wind" is no exception. Lots of sorcery in this one too.

Cliff Biggers was also a new name to me. "The Last Temple of Balsoth" featured a character named “Gondar.” Gondar is out for revenge, a not unusual motivation in sword and sorcery, but this was a really fun tale that could easily have been set in REH’s Hyborian age.

Finally there’s “Lono and the Pit of Punhaki" by Paul R. McNamee. I’ve been in an anthology with Paul and know him as a very fine writer. This was a great tale to end the collection, and with a unique setting among Pacific islanders.

All in all, an enjoyable collection of robust red-blooded tales of adventure.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Friday's Forgotten Books: Stepsons of Terra

Stepsons of Terra, by Robert Silverberg: Ace, 174 pages.

According to the introduction of this book by Silverberg, Stepsons of Terra was his 6th published novel, written in October of 1957. Silverberg indicated that he’d had plenty of shorter stuff published before this work, though, as well as the five other novels. The original title of the book was Shadow on the Stars, and it appeared in the April 1958 issue of Science Fiction Adventures, edited at the time by Larry T. Shaw, who requested a novel from Silverberg. Later that year it was picked up by Donald Wollheim for his Ace Doubles book line, where it appeared opposite of a book by British author Lan Wright.

In his introduction to “Stepsons,” which contains a wealth of good information, Silverberg says he’d written plenty of shorter “melodramas” for Science Fiction Adventures under various pseudonyms. By melodramas he means “blood-and-thunder,” and “blazing ray-guns” written “strictly for fun.” As is often the case when Silverberg talks about writing SF, he takes—at least to me—a slightly disparaging tone about the more pulpish aspects of the genre. This never fails to irritate me. Personally, his more pulpish tales are by far my favorites among his work. These include two that I read as a kid called Conquerors from the Darkness and Time of the Great Freeze.

As for Stepsons of Terra, Silverberg writes that since it was going to appear under his own name, he: “was a trifle less flamboyant about making use of the pulp-magazine clichés beloved by the magazine’s readers. There would be no hissing villains and basilisk-eyed princess in this one, no desperate duels with dagger and mace, no feudal overloads swaggering about the stars. Rather, I would write a straightforward science fiction novel strongly plotted but not unduly weighted toward breathless adventure.”

So, what was the result? In my opinion? Well, it was good but I think it would have been better with more of those pulp elements. It’s definitely a tale of intrigue rather than action and adventure. The adventure is certainly not “breathless.” Relatively little actually happens in the story, although the writing is good and the characters hold your attention. Too, Silverberg certainly does avoid the cliché descriptions of women often found in tales of the pulp era. And the epic space battle in the book is about as anti-climactic as you can get—certainly not cliché though.

According to Silverberg, the book was very well received by the readers of Science Fiction Adventures and the next issue of the magazine was full of “letters of praise.” I’m sure it was, and I did enjoy the book. Not my favorite of his, though. I guess I’d have to say: give me more pulp.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Snake-Man's Bane, by Howie K. Bentley

The Snake-Man’s Bane, by Howie K. Bentley, is a collection of heroic fantasy short stories from Wild Hunt Books. It contains: The Snake-Man’s Bane, All Will Be Righted on Samhain (with David C. Smith), The Heart of the Betrayer, Where There Is No Sanctuary, Thannhausefeer’s Guest, and Full Moon Revenant. Several have been previously published in magazines or anthologies but are collected here for the first time. Most are longish tales, which puts a lot of meat on their bones.
All stories in the collection stand on their own but there is a common thread that runs through them. This is the character of Thorn, a kind of demon-god from the “Rune Realms” who feeds on the essence of other gods and often possesses mortal warriors to use as avatars in our world. Thorn does not appear in all the stories but there is a connection to him in each of the tales.

The primary setting for these pieces is a mythical Europe. There are many hints to suggest that it is the same world, only later in time, as the world described by Robert E. Howard in his Hyborian Age Essay. Mention is made in the stories of Valusia (from Kull’s time) and Zamora (from Conan’s). There is mention of an imprisoned “elephant-headed god from beyond the stars” and of a “great warrior” who destroyed the tower where the god was imprisoned. This is certainly a reference to Robert E. Howard’s “TheTower of the Elephant,” which would make Conan the “great warrior.” In addition, the snake men of the title, who play a prominent role in the first story, seem quite likely to be related to the serpent men mentioned by Howard in some of his Kull tales.

One thing that doesn’t quite jive with the setting as described above is that in the story “All Will be Righted on Samhain,” which was co-written with the excellent author, David C. Smith, there is mention of Rome and the historical Queen Boadicea of the Kelts. A time is even given, 60 CE. However, the main character of this tale, Boadicea’s daughter, Bunduica, becomes a sorcerer who is able to open doorways to other realms. This connected realm concept may explain how this particular story links to the others in the collection.

Although the Howard influence is clear and spelled out for the reader in these tales, I also felt like there was a bit of influence from Michael Moorcock’s “Eternal Champion” series. In particular, the way that the demon-god Thorn inhabits various forms through time suggests this. At least to me.

My favorite story in the collection is “Where There is No Sanctuary.” This tale starts out in a way that was reminiscent for me of Howard’s “The Frost King’s Daughter.” This story also features my favorite warrior character in the collection, Argantyr. Argantyr is a literary descendent of such heroes as Conan and Karl Wagner’s Kane, but he is unique to Howie Bentley, with a particular talent that I won’t spoil for you here. He’s quite an appealing character, albeit grim, and I’d love to read more about him.

All influences and discussion of settings and characters aside, the key aspect to these stories is that they are “tales of high adventure.” They’re exciting works full of both heroic and villainous deeds, violent swordplay, and the dark doings of sorcery. I very much enjoyed them and highly recommend them to you. The book is available in both paperback and kindle if you’re looking to pick up a copy. Here’s the link: